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Seattle to Rochester, Part 3: Chicago to Conway (Pittsburgh)

It was about noon on Wednesday (August 28, 1968) when I climbed into the empty baggage car sitting on a track in the Penn Central yard in the southeast section of Chicago. I had just gotten off an inter-yard shuttle train that began at the Western Avenue Yard west of downtown Chicago. The baggage car was part of a train that was bound for Pittsburgh.

I was getting warm. Why was I warm? The fact that it was noon on a sunny August day in a mid-western freight yard had something to do with it. So did the fact that I was in an empty baggage car with both sliding doors closed and latched from the inside. The doors were closed as a safety measure: the crew of the shuttle train had advised me to do this because the neighborhood just to the east was "rough".

As soon as I latched the sliding doors of the baggage car I entered that persistive vegetative state known as "waiting." There wasn't a lot to do except look out the window in either side door to see if any punks were roaming through the yard. No one appeared. After a while I was relieved to hear the sounds of the air brakes being charged. At 1400 the Penn Central Railroad began the awesome responsibility of transporting me from Chicago, Illinois to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The ride to Pittsburgh was typical of many rides: mostly dull with a few highlights. Three things deserve mention. The first was my attempt to refill my water bag in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Long after leaving behind the ugly industrial south side of Chicago and passing through most of the state of Indiana (rural and boring), the train stopped in Fort Wayne at 1945. As it slowed down I peered into in empty boxcars sitting on a neighboring track in the hope of finding cardboard on which to sleep. I saw some. As soon as the train stopped, I hit the ground and headed for the boxcar containing the cardboard. With this sleeping pad in hand, I returned to my car and climbed in. This scrounging had taken less than ten minutes. Then I saw a small yard building about 200 feet away and wondered if I'd have enough time to fill my water bag there. Did I immediately jump out of the baggage car and sprint to the building? Hell no. Instead, I sat there for about twenty minutes wondering if I had enough time to fill the bag and return before the train left. There was a string of boxcars and flatcars between my train and the building, and I would have to cross that string twice to get water and return. Finally I summoned the courage to do it. As I began to fill the bag, the train, with my pack aboard, began to pull out. The water would wait! A mad dash - including a quick scramble over a flatcar - got me to back my car just in time. Whew!

The second thing worth mentioning took place after night had set in. I laid on the floor of the baggage car, watching the movement of lights along the opposite wall of the car. This was most intense when passing grade crossings, where automobile headlights cast bright beams, but was also fun to observe when away from roads: farm house lights would trace a long path along the wall, eventually fading out or suddenly disappearing when blocked by an obstruction. Sometimes I could see the shadows cast by the bars on the baggage car's window. This observation of lights while lying on one's back was the type of thing one could never experience on a passenger train. In that I took immense delight.

The third item concerned a stop in the middle of the night outside some town in Ohio. The location is of no importance. What was meaningful was my sudden urge to defecate. Nature's call had to be answered and I didn't want to do it in the car, though on later trips I figured out how to do it. With toilet kit (paper and knife) in hand I walked about 100 feet ahead of my car. Under a starry sky I dropped my drawers, squatted, and let fly, decorating a few square inches of the landscape with excrement. I had an epiphany of sorts as my attention shifted from the progress of my performance to the state of the train (was it moving?) to the grandeur of the star-filled sky. I was at one with the cosmos, contributing to the never-ending cycle of life. That it happened in Ohio had no meaning: it would have had the same metaphysical significance anywhere. I completed the celestial circle by digging a crude hole (remember the knife?) and burying the fruits of my labor. You have to squat under a starry sky next to a freight train to appreciate my relating this story. After that necessary act I got back into the baggage car, went to sleep, and slept through the rest of Ohio.

It was about 0630 when I woke up to a bright sunny day, traveling along a river. Early morning traffic on the nearby road was the only sign of life. I saw a sign referring to Rochester, so it was clear that I was in Pennsylvania, about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. I knew that it could not be Rochester, New York, my ultimate destination. That placed me less than 15 miles from Conway, where my train would terminate. Pre-trip study of railroad routes and operations had taught me that Conway was the site of Penn Central's largest freight yard.

After passing through two more towns I entered the west end of the huge yard at Conway. As is the case with any big yard, it seemed to take forever for the train to get situated on a yard track and stop. Finally the wheels stopped moving. For the first time in my life I stepped onto Pennsylvania soil. It was 0720. Figuring that I had stopped in the section of the yard for incoming trains, I crossed a few tracks and started walking east on a service road to find the departure yard. Some men in a railroad company repair truck drove up from behind me and stopped, asking me where I was headed. I replied that I was looking for a train going to Buffalo, so they told me to hop in - they'd take me where I needed to go. I gladly accepted their offer. This was the start of an amazing story of assistance rendered to a young college student acting as a part-time hobo.